"I felt each individual tooth in my mouth": Ireland's Conor Turner shares his experiences of Ice Swimming

The Irish ice swimmer speaks to Newstalk.com following his performance at the Annual Ice Swimming World Championships

Ice Swimming, Conor Turner

Image: Shani Stallard

On the German-Austrian border sits a small town by the name of Burghausen. The area is home to little more than 18,000 people, and is far removed from the bright lights of Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt.

Burghausen is the largest town in the Altötting district of Oberbayern and, for those interested, is home to the longest castle in the world. At time of writing, conditions in the area are partly cloudy, while temperatures have plunged to -8°C.

Why is it, then, that scores of long distance and outdoor swimmers descended on the small town at the start of the January?

Irish swimmer and DIT student Conor Turner was one of 15 Irish athletes who made the trip into the heart of mainland Europe to compete in the second Annual Ice Swimming World Championships.

Air temperature dropped as low as -15°C, while water temperature hovered over two degrees.

"It’s exactly like a pool, except that it’s cut into a frozen-over lake," he explains. Competing over 1,000m, Conor set the second fastest time in the world last year to meet qualification standards for the event.

An accomplished cross country runner throughout his time in school and part of DIT's sport scholarship programme, he also represented Ireland in swimming events and even holds the Irish junior record for the fastest 800m freestyle time, a feat he achieved back in 2013.

"I swam all the way through school and college and arrived at a point where I didn’t actually enjoy it anymore," he explains. "I just got a bit bored. This was something completely different. 

"I had been doing it for so long and it was getting to the stage where I felt that for the amount of time, effort and money I was putting in, that I wasn't getting enough out of it."

"I felt it was time to move away from it. I think I made the right decision, judging by the lack of Olympic qualifiers who trained in Ireland."

Race conditions in Burghausen where scores of long and short distance swimmers competed in freezing conditions. Image: Shani Stallard

As strange as it sounds, Ireland is growing in stature as one of the leading nations in the world to promote the sport of ice swimming, with cold water conditions favourable to hosting national and international events.

"The recovery standards in Ireland are some of the best in the world, with the saunas and the hot towel treatments. Germany was a bit of a shock to the system because you were left by yourself during recovery. You had to do it alone, there wasn’t a team of people looking after you."

And for swimmers, while conditions in the water are dangerous, it's the moments after you step out of the pool which are vital to avoiding damage to your health.

"You have to tell your body that it’s OK and that you will stop shivering. It’s about trying to prevent shock setting in. That’s the danger. The swimming won’t kill you, it’s the recovery."

According to the International Ice Swimming Association, to qualify as an ice swim, water temperatures must be lower than 5°C. Experiencing conditions like this can cause skin to burn, and some swimmers can suffer from peripheral vasoconstriction (PV).

This occurs when blood flow is reduced in the limbs and skin, and recedes to the heart in order to maintain heat, allowing the heart and body to remain functioning.

This acts as a defence against hypothermia – but it causes the extremities to tighten up and makes movement more difficult.

'Afterdrop' is another such risk when swimmers complete their course and enter recovery. Cold blood around the peripheries of different organs, which act as a barrier layer, flows into the warmer core and causes sudden cooling in body temperature. This can cause organs to go into shock and sometimes briefly shut down.

Snow and ice stick to the ground as Conor Turner prepares to enter the pool. Image: Shani Stallard

"It’s completely a mental recovery. It’s arguably the most important part," Conor explains. "To be honest, I actually didn’t feel the cold when I was doing it. You get in and you get on with it. You know it’s freezing but you're just so focused on racing and what you have to do that, you don’t feel it as much.

"You can see the people who let the mental aspect get the better of them. Four people ended up in hospital because they didn’t recover and got too cold. The recovery is the most important part and that’s where the mental side is the most important part.

"When I finished, I ran to a recovery tent. It wasn’t too hot and I started putting towels in hot water and started throwing them over myself. This was to get the core temperature back up and then I went into the hot tub.

"It’s all about knowing how your body will react to things like that and knowing what you should be doing. There were some people who just went straight into the hot tub, and it proved to big a jump from the cold to the hot. They just passed out. The heart just isn’t able for it.

"It’s dangerous in that aspect, so you’ve got to be responsible and have your head screwed on. The adrenaline helps. It takes about half an hour to realise what you’ve just done, and because all the focus is on getting warm."

With risks like this a very real possibility, the International Ice Swimming Association [IISA] - the governing body for the sport - requires athletes to undergo an electrocardiogram (ECG). This test records the electrical activity of the heart and determines whether or not a person’s body can cope with the intense cold of the water. 

"1,000 metres to a distance swimmer doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a completely different environment. You sort of panic. The first time I ever got in, I tried to swim, but I couldn’t and my chest started contracting. Your face gets extremely sore.

"You end up with the weirdest sensations, it was the first time I had ever felt each individual tooth in my mouth."

Training for events such as these includes long distance swims in a pool, every so often punctuated by a trip up North to experience the freezing cold waters in an outdoor pool in Belfast.

"I do a few time trials to see where I am in my training. In the pool, it’s a case of getting the mileage. Even though you can handle the cold, you can’t spend that much time in it.

"You wouldn’t spend more than 45 minutes in the sea in November because there’s no facilities to get you recovered quick enough. But you can do a two hour session twice a day in a pool.

"Even though it is a shorter distance, undoubtedly it’s the conditions that have the most impact. I do think you have to be a distance athlete to do it."

The acclimatisation and training helped him to post a time of 12:42,98 over 1,000m, the second fastest in the competition, and with the growing popularity of the sport, he says there is certainly more scope for ice swimming to grow globally.

"It may not continue at this rate of growth, but at the Winter Olympics in 2022 it could be there. They did a test event in Sochi and the Olympic council are obviously interested in it. The recovery procedures are improving, so it is a lot safer than it was three or four years ago. There's a chance we could see it in the years to come."